Friday, 30 June 2017

WHW Race 2017 Witterings

Following a successful running year in 2014 including a West Highland Way Race finish, the next 2 and a half years would prove to be less so due to continual chest and breathing issues resulting in me unable to get any sort of structured, consistent training done.
This hit an all time low with my first ultra DNF in the 2015 WHW Race, pulling out at Rowardennan. Suddenly all the praise from friends, family, workmates etc  about being able to “run 100 miles” felt hollow and un-deserved.

Following a recommendation from Ruth Howie during the WHW race in 2016 (as part of the support team for my friend Yi Yang), I started using a blue inhaler which seemed to help and resulted in me managing to grind out a finish at the GO33 last year. This gave me a renewed optimism and felt I was maybe starting to turn the corner and re-gain some form. As November approached I decided to throw my name in for the 4th time into the 2017 WHW Race ballot and was delighted to discover I had a place.  I had 6 months to get myself in shape.

A few days after Xmas I was hit with the worse cold I’d had for many years which lingered on to the end of Jan, not a good start. The weeks that followed I was once again beset with various breathing issues and was starting to accept my running days might well be behind me. In March, myself, Tommy and Ian  headed to Arran with the aim to run round the island (55 miles) as we had done in 2014. Unfortunately I managed 10 miles before having to walk eventually giving up 20 miles in, not great preparation for the Highland Fling only 4 weeks away. Shortly after returning from Arran I was recommended by a few friends to go back to the doctor and see about getting a different inhaler.

Immediately I felt there was an improvement and I decided to give the Fling a crack and try and finish. I knew if I was unable to complete the Fling I could forget the WHW Race 2 months away.
The Highland Way Fling day arrived and I ran it with my mate Pete eventually finishing in just under 15 hours, some 2 and a half hours slower than my best one in 2014. The thing is though, I’d done it. Just a few weeks earlier I’d struggled to run 10 and I’d just managed 53 miles so the WHW was definitely on.

The remaining 8 weeks soon flew by and WHW Race 2017 was upon me.
I’d taken the Fri off and spent the day finalising my kit and trying to stay off my feet as much as possible and even managed a couple of hours sleep.

At 9.30pm I left to pick up my mate Ian then up to West Calder to collect my sister Pam and brother in law Tommy (referred to as Tommy S). Following a pitstop in High Bonnybridge to collect Steve my support runner we arrived in Milngavie about 11.40pm and after several loops of the car park found an empty space directly opposite the registration building.

We met up with Tommy and Roy for a few minutes before going up to registration.  The room was buzzing with runners, supporters, marshalls etc many of whom I know. After picking up my number and car park pass I was told to go over and collect my wrist band bar code thing which was put on by Debbie Consani. We said hello and she asked how my training had gone. I told her not as well as I’d hoped but planned to give it my best. She wished me luck and I moved on to get weighed. For the record, what other sport can you participate in where your average runner gets his wrist band put on by a Great British athlete who just also happens to be a lovely down to earth person like Debbie. It’s stuff like this that really make ultra running so special.

Just before the medical talk Tommy’s Dad, his sister Audrey and Yi (Tommy’s support runner) arrived. We had supported Yi last year in his first WHW after he posted for help and this year he was returning the favour.Medical talk and photos out of the way we said our goodbyes and Tommy and I made our way to the start.

And we were off. As I climbed the stairs to the rapturous cheers and noise I fought to extinguish any negative thoughts which always seem to hit me right at the very start of an ultra.As we ran along the main street lined with people we saw our guys on the right and smiled across. Within minutes we were into Mugdock Park away from the bright lights and noise. Weather wise it was coolish but dry, pretty perfect actually. I’d chosen to carry just a single water bottle in my hand and pick up the pack later. Tommy and I had already decided we would run together and just see how it panned out. Taking turns to lead it wasn’t long before we crossed the road through the gate to climb the grassy hill towards the cross over at Drymen. A point to note was about 2miles in this running blur shot passed us. That blur turned out to be eventual race winner and course record holder Rob Sinclair who had taken a wrong turn earlier. As we got to the top of the hill we stopped briefly to talk to Pam, Tommy S and Ian and have our bottles refilled. Soon we were on the long road to Conic. Even after just 10 miles the race had spread out with not too many in view either in front or behind. The sun was beginning to rise and I took off my headtorch.

The miles to Conic passed without incident with Tommy and I both feeling good. Crossing the little bridge we arrived at the foot of Conic and started the slow ascent. About half way up I noticed Tommy was lagging behind slightly. When you’ve trained together with someone as long as Tommy and I have trained you instantly sense when something isn’t quite right. I shouted back asking if he was ok. He told me his hip was quite painful but said he hoped it would pass as he’d taken a couple of paracetamol tablets. As I continued the climb I kept glancing behind me and noticed the gap was getting longer. I shouted back and Tommy said it was getting worse and he was feeling quite sickly and told me he was starting to worry whether he could continue but told me to press on ahead.
At that point I realise I had to face the high chance Tommy may not be continuing and I needed to accept that and forge my own race plan. I kept pushing on up the hill, soon reaching the top before making my  way down as quickly as possible into the forest before arriving in Balmaha. As I ran into the checkpoint  Tommy S was there who directed me to the others. I sat down and wolfed down my beans and sausages and put on my backpack complete with 2 bottles, one water and one electrolyte drink. I told them Tommy was struggling but said I’d hang about and wait to see how he was. The others told me I should just go. At that point Tommy arrived and said he was going to press on but told me to get going. Taking the advice I pushed on as I made my way up the horrible steep incline from the road I kept trying to phone Tommy to see how he was but was getting no answer. Soon enough  I was onto the trail and on my way to Rowardennan. For some odd reason I never enjoy this section despite it being a very runnable and scenic stage though this time I actually quite enjoyed it. After several more attempts to phone Tommy I accepted then that I was on my own and had to crack on. 

As I ran into Rowardennan expecting to just have my drop bag for company I was pleasantly surprised to see Ian and Steven taking pictures as I neared the checkpoint. I sat down briefly and ate a yogurt, pork pie washed down with a few gulps of Coca Cola. They told me Tommy had apparently perked up which was great news but I knew I had to keep pushing on myself regardless. The next section to Inversnaid passed fairly well without any issues although I was making a conscious decision to keep eating and drinking. The wind at this point had started to pick up and it was getting a bit colder. Just before reaching the checkpoint I received a call from Roy telling me Tommy had retired due to his hip (which he later discovered after the race is an impending hernia). That was it, I had to do this for not just me but Tommy and the whole team. Soon enough I reached the checkpoint and received a welcome hug from Ruth Howie. I sat on the fence for a few minutes chatting to her, taking on food while she kindly filled my bottles for me. I deliberately made my stay short and took off towards Beinglas. This section is the most technical and dangerous by far and not a favourite of mines.

Despite not being a favourite section of mine I noticed at the Fling it hadn’t felt as bad and this time was no exception. You just have to accept running is virtually non existent and tramp on as best as possible. After climbing the hill I said hello to Dario and ran the final few miles into the checkpoint. As I ran in I was greeted with cheers and lovely applause by onlookers which never fails to raise the spirits. As I ran through the checkpoint there was no sign of the support team. I stood about for a few minutes before heading back up to eventually see them. Apparently despite me phoning I’d arrived slightly earlier than expected.

After the usual refuelling of bottles and food taken onboard I headed out and started the long climb. At this point I tied up with a guy called Ally and enjoyed a bit of a chinwag which was welcome. Running these things usually with Tommy meant we had permanent company but this time round I was on my own for most of the time so it was nice to have a natter and take your mind off what lay ahead. Adopting a policy by this time of walking and running I made good ground and just before the gate which turns up into Ewich I saw a large crate with a box marked “Honestly Box”. I opened the box and was astonished to find a massive array of various tinned juice and chocolate. I picked up a Marsbar but then realising I had no money on me I reluctantly put it back, there was simply no way I could take advantage of such an awesome gesture. Before long I was into Ewich and started the long up and downs. Having done this in Nov as part of the Fling training weekend and again in the Fling itself it never seemed as long as it once did. 

Eventually I reached the steps down to the bridge which leads down to the road crossing which leads into Auchtertyre Farm. Sticking to my walk and run strategy I reached the checkpoint and was weighed before having some food. Although you’re only in a checkpoint for 5 – 10 mins it can’t be overstated how welcoming it is to see your crew. With Tommy having retired it meant my crew had become 7 so it was all hands on deck. It was at this point that Yi had said he would like to join me which was fantastic. Although you still have to cover the same ground with or without a support runner, just having him there gives you a huge boost. Leaving the checkpoint we ran most of the downhill section and continued with the walk run tactics until we hit Tydrum and picked up our pre-ordered ice lolly from Brodies before the long climb. Sadly Irn Bru was out of stock which teaches me to not run as slow next time but a lemonade flavoured one was just as nice. 

As we reached the top of the long hill out of Tydrum we were met with a really strong headwind and shortly after, heavy rain all of which was expected. This section is usually quite a “fast” and very runnable section but in these conditions running was very difficult. Mid way I had to stop for a no 2 and promptly moved behind a bush and did the business. As I did other runners passed and never batted an eyelid, that’s ultra running for you. I had already planned to meet the crew over the hill at Inverarnan as parking is tight at Bridge of Orchy. However as we neared BOC Yi suggested we ask the guys to meet us at BOC since our food rations were getting low and I in particular was starting to feel the cold. This was the first time I felt my feet were starting to get a tad painful so figured a shoe change at BOC was the right thing to do. As we ran down the hill from the station past the BOC hotel into the checkpoint I clocked in and was again given a very welcome, warm hug from Ruth. 

As I approached the crew, Tommy told me we had lost considerable time in that section and may struggle to get to Glencoe in time. I told him if I was timed out I’d be disappointed but not too much as I’d given my all at this point. He replied there was no f****g way he was going to let that happen. I climbed into the back of the car for a brief respite from the harsh weather and was handed some warm soup which I enjoyed while Tommy changed my shoes, socks and applied running tights. Once done I was hurried out and told I needed to get to Glencoe no later than 11pm if I stood any chance of making the cutoff at Kinlochleven. As Yi and I ran up towards the hill we heard yelling but not paying any attention we carried on but noticed the noise getting louder. I stopped and turned round and was told we were going the way! Oddly it had crossed my mind that it didn’t look familiar but I hadn’t thought any more of it! We quickly turned around and were soon climbing towards Jelly Baby Hill. We got up and over the hill fairly quickly and were soon on our way down towards Inverarnan to once again meets the guys to grab a hot cup of tea to take with us. Having changed shoes at BOC from road to Hoka the difference was great. No longer were my feet burning which made running far more tolerable. As we ran towards the gate leading onto the old Drovers Road we started chatting to a couple of guys, Andy and his support runner Mike. We were to keeping passing one another over the next 30 miles!

Once up onto Rannoch Moor we stuck to the run and walk strategy, essentially running all down hills and most flats while walking the ascent. At this point I kept asking anyone nearby if they thought we would make the cut off and every time I was re-assured we would. Fortunately the gale force wind was on our back for much of this which made a huge difference and made for a fairly pain free section. As we spotted the flags to the ski centre down to the right we knew the checkpoint wasn’t far off. Before long we had arrived and we jogged up the hill to clock in and meet the crew.
The guys had tried to buy soup for me from the cafe but it had sold out, again my own fault for taking so long. Luckily Tommy generously gave me his macaroni which I have to say was delicious providing much needed nourishment and heat. At this point Yi was going to hand over running duties to my long time mate Steve. As I turned to run out of the checkpoint I saw Lorna McMillan who asked if I had any waterproof trousers and if so suggested I put them on which I did. That advice was later to prove very important in the last section. Trousers on Steve and I bid our fairwells and ran off down the road into the darkness and sprawling hills that lay ahead. 

By this time the weather had really turned nasty, biting, gale force wind with driving rain. We did the best to keep spirits high cracking jokes and regailing the last time we were at this point and saw the Grim Reaper at the gate appropriately enough to the Devil’s Staircase.  As we reached Kingshouse hotel we saw a deer standing literally 2 feet from the road. As we approached we were both convinced it wasn’t real. As we got closer it turned it’s head to follow us so we stopped briefly while Steve took a photo. It took what felt like a while to reach the gate to the Staricase. Steve reminded me to just take it nice and easy and we would soon reach the top. I’ve never found this section as difficult as some make out but on this occasion I had to pause briefly several times to let the lactic acid subside from the leg muscles. As we neared the top we saw a sign “Shop 500m”. Steve commented on what a sick sense of humour someone has. Several minutes later we reached another this time telling us we only had 100m to the shop, then 50 then as he hit the top there from the darkness appeared a couple of open tents filled with juice and various snacks with an honestly box to the side. Thanks to whoever came up with this idea, it’s a welcome and indeed great idea especially if rations are low. 

Pausing briefly to take a photo we carried on to what I always think is the toughest section of the entire route. The fact that it is so uneven, bumpy and unrunnable is made ten times worse in the pitch dark. We kept moving forward as best we could and broke into a chorus of Beach Boys songs and some Ocean Colour Scene. At this point midway down we were caught and overtaken by Andy and Mike whom we had met up earlier on the approach to Rannoch Moor. Once they past us we stayed on their tail and eventually overtook them as we headed down towards Kinlochleven. As we made our way down the switchbacks we spotted a head torch going the wrong way. As he approached us he asked if we could tell him what way to go. We told him to just stick with us. Making good progress along what seemed to drag on and on the runner behind us caught us up and handed his phone to Steve telling him someone wanted to speak to him. The person on the phone who we later found out was Dod Reid asked Steven if we would ensure the runner got to the checkpoint safely. Before long we arrived in Kinlochleven.

 After getting weighed by Karen Donahue we had a sandwich,  cup of tea and a few other things while Pam changed my socks for me. Taking off wet socks and putting on dry ones into soaking wet shoes doesn’t make much sense but it does when you’ve been running for a day and a half.  

Not wanting to hang about any longer than we had to we bid our final farewell and headed once again back out into the cold night. Mentally I always get a huge boost because I know the next checkpoint is the end and it’s effectively impossible to give up now because of that.

After what seemed like a far longer climb than I’d previously remembered we were up on to the Lairig Mor and at last heading to Fort William. By this point the sun was beginning to rise which always helps lift spirits. At this point I was getting quite concerned about how cold I was. Steve told me it wasn’t actually that cold and it was probably more down to my body shutting down due to having spent the last 30+ hours running. I knew the best way to get a heat was to run faster and get to the leisure centre. After reaching Jeff and his team for a welcome drink of Irn Bru we continued on running where possible. By this point we both realised it was easier to simply run through the streams and rivers than trying to avoid them. If I’m honest the cool water was quite comforting on the hot feet. Again after what felt like an age we eventually hit Lundavra and were greeted by a number of welcome marshalls. As we veered right up the hill I asked how far and was told 6 miles to go. This last section has completely changed due to some serious tree felling and many of the markers I remember have vanished. At this point we were both starting to get a bit of a lift as we knew the running was soon to be over. I muttered to Steve that in some ways I wished I was going to finish last so I had the honour of being given my goblet by the winner. I then said I could imagine the winner leaving over and whispering into my ear asking “Had I actually made any effort given how woeful my time was!”. This reduced us both to stitches of laughter which helped numb the considerable pain my feet were in.

I remember from 2014 climbing the final hill leading to the fire road and sitting on a pile of logs waiting for the others to catch up. I said to Steve I wondered if they would still be there. Steve said given they had effectively cleared tens of square acres of forestry it was highly unlikely a small pile of logs would remain 3 years on once again reducing us into fits of laughter. As we hit the hill we quickly climbed it and as we spotted the fire road we saw the aforementioned pile of logs from 3 year previously. “In your face Steve!!” I shouted.

Finally onto the fire road we knew we had just 3-4 miles left and did the run / walk thing as best we could. Nearing Braveheart carpark we spotted a couple of runners and I told Steve I wanted to try and run them down. As we neared I realised it was once again Andy and Mike and another support runner. We stopped and chatted and congratulated one another of what we were minutes from achieving. We bid our farewells and pushed on passing Tommy and Roy who had parked up in the car park. Reaching the bottom we turned to run the final mile and a half to the end. As we neared Fort Willliam a young girl runner shouted well done and said she was looking forward to seeing me collect my goblet. With 50 yards left I picked up my feet and made my best sprint to the end. I as crossed the line I was embraced by all the guys. I’d done it.  Determined to not cry like a girl this time as Tommy gave me a hug he whispered he was so proud of what I’d done. Time wise it was about 5 mins slower than my first one and 2 and a half hours slower than my PB in 2014 but considering what was acknowledged at the prize giving as being probably the worse ever weather in the event’s history the time wasn’t too shabby. The fact 50 of the 210 starters had to retire tells it’s own story.

I’ll be back for another crack, not next year, maybe not evern the year after that but when the WHW race gets under your skin, it’s there for life.

Thanks to my awesome team, I simply couldn’t have managed it without all your love and support. Thanks also to Iain Beattie and the whole WHW race team, you really do put on quite an event.